My last Richard III was as part of a memorable (if slightly exhausting at the time) weekend in Stratford, the culmination of the RSC’s Histories cycle, during which the same company performed all eight of the history plays in their consecutive order.
Yesterday’s version at the Old Vic was a much more lightweight affair, clocking in at only three and a quarter hours as opposed to three and a quarter days – although the curious decision to break for interval after more than two hours did make me worry that it might be going for the same record.
But once you get past the terrifying fear that they might be planning to run through without an interval at all, this production is a real pleasure. Kevin Spacey’s Richard isn’t subtle – his twisted body is held together with what looks to be meccano and his back is hunched to comic proportions – but then I suppose the point of Richard, the most villainous of Shakespeare’s villains, isn’t really his subtlety. Spacey plays the role with passion, but never with glee – the vein of self-loathing which runs through his Richard is always visible. This isn’t a comic-book baddie and he’s never truly terrifying or hateful, but the strength of Spacey’s portrayal and what makes it chilling is the sense of inevitability he brings to the role – Richard is just doing what he does. Not out of hatred or even a passion for power, but just because that’s who he is.
There’s an able supporting cast, most notably Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and Chuk Iwuji in an exceptionally tight suit as Buckingham.
My enduring memory of the RSC Histories Cycle was the extent to which they seemed to fit together and be dependent on each other. This is nowhere more true than with Richard III, which is really a coda to Henry VI and heavily dependent on an understanding of the characters and relationships from those plays. This production – aimed at an audience who will be largely unfamiliar with the Henry VI trilogy – does a good job of adding context, but there are some necessary simplifications. Most notable of these is the characterisation of Queen Margaret, who here is not a mourning mother but a Macbethian weird sister.
Sam Mendes’ production is high on concept and, notwithstanding the length, moves along at a fair clip. Lighting, sound and music are used to dramatic and powerful effect – there can be few things quite as involving as the drumming scene towards the end.
This show, given its casting, was always going to be a hit. It was always going to be a sell out. Luckily, it deserves to be.
NB. To avoid the tedium of the internet critics, I should point out that this was probably a preview, because I haven’t seen any other reviews and it’s early in the run. But the website says it runs from 18 June (yesterday), the ticket doesn’t say preview on it and the word doesn’t appear on the the website anywhere. So I think it’s fair game.